Female killers including Hazel Stewart undergoing far too many strip-searches behind bars, says report
Notorious women killers such as Hazel Stewart, Jaqueline Crymble and Julie McGinley are being strip-searched in prison too often, a damning new inspection report has found.
The Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) said inmates at Ash House – Northern Ireland's only female jail – were subjected to an unnecessary and disproportionate number of strip-searches.
"All women were needlessly strip-searched on arrival and randomly after visits, which was excessive," the report said.
The CJI carried out separate inspections on Ash House and Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre which share a huge site on the outskirts of south Belfast.
Findings for both institutions were equally scathing with concerns raised over safety, rehabilitation and frequent lock-downs among the key issues.
Ash House accommodates 57 prisoners, and although the unit was clean and physical conditions were mostly good, inspectors said the site was unsuitable.
There was evidence of verbal intimidation from the juveniles and women were losing out because of frequent lock-downs at the adjacent YOC. Inspectors also found that too many prisoners felt victimised by staff.
"Overall, this was a disappointing inspection. In particular because women continued to be held in a predominantly male prison which was having a significant and intractable impact upon outcomes they experienced. Women were reasonably well cared for but they were inevitably marginalised and restricted in their access to facilities and services.
"Many security arrangements were overly restrictive, often instigated to address issues in the YOC, and had a disproportionate consequential impact on women."
The report found that levels of purposeful activity aimed at assisting rehabilitation had deteriorated since the last inspection two years ago.
"Only the long-promised closure and replacement of Ash House would resolve the problems we saw," it said.
At Hydebank Wood inspectors were equally disappointed and blamed lack of continuity in senior management coupled with a disengaged, indifferent attitude of some staff for poor findings.
Safety was a major concern at the facility which houses 171 young men aged between 18 and 21. Inspectors found lessons had not been learned from recent deaths in custody and there was a complacent attitude towards self harm incidents.
The report noted: "Management and leadership of learning and skills were poor and co-ordination needed to be improved."
Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland, has made 156 recommendations for improvement for both facilities.
Reacting to the report, Prison Service director general Sue McAllister said there had been a number of major changes at Hydebank and Ash House since the inspection was carried out.
She said: "Whilst I acknowledge the negative findings of both reports, it must be borne in mind that this inspection was carried out at what was a very challenging time for the Prison Service, particularly at Hydebank Wood.
"Since this inspection was undertaken there have been major changes. A new management team is in place, supported by a director of offender policy and operations and a director of rehabilitation, both of which are based at headquarters.
"Issues of drug misuse are now tackled in a dynamic, intelligence-led manner and exciting plans for the creation of a secure college, which will concentrate on the provision of essential skills for prisoners."
Ms McAllister also acknowledged that housing male and female prisoners in such close proximity was far from ideal.
HAZEL STEWART (49): The ex-Sunday school teacher was jailed for a minimum of 18 years in 2011 for murdering her husband and her ex-lover's wife.
JAQUELINE CRYMBLE (41): She is serving 20 years for killing her husband Paul. Her lover Roger Ferguson was jailed for 18 years.
JULIE McGINLEY (42): McGinley was jailed for life for the 2000 murder of her husband Gerry in Co Fermanagh.